We’re smoking under the bleachers like caricatures of ourselves. American dolls that have been posed by time and history itself. Blond with new skin like old music. Smooth and cool in the air. Tracy is shorter than me, and her skeleton is less formed. She has less of a shape in the air. A boy once told me, via a poem that was wedged into one of the vents of my locker and that smelled of drying grass and corn, that my bone structure was “historic.” I set it on fire in the school bathroom’s sink.
“You’re so lucky,” Tracy says.
Tracy’s father is forty-eight and has gray hair as thick and coarse as steel wool. Sometimes he’ll start rubbing my shoulders and telling me I need to relax when Tracy is in the bathroom or on the phone in another room. His voice is clicky and high, like an insect’s. If I try, I can feel the ghost weight of his fingers tracing my collarbones through the top of my shirt. He always stops, sharply, when Tracy reappears. It’s nothing important.
“How many Stickmen has Adam fireworked?” Tracy says. “Has he told you?”
Tracy goes silent as she accepts the cigarette, cracks of growing ash already obscuring its orange glow, filter ringed with the strawberry imprint of my lips.
“No,” I say. Tracy drags in a perfunctory way, like a teenage smoking robot, without waste or feeling. The shadows of the bleachers break her into segments of light and shadow.
“I heard some soldiers take pieces of them and wear them as necklaces or get them set in rings. If you hold a piece up to your eye, you can see a whole new spectrum of colors.”
“Isn’t that dangerous? Don’t they seed?” I say, taking the cigarette back. I am thinking of Adam’s eyes, which are a solid blue so bright they are almost silver. Someone blows a whistle on the field. Cut grass and army surplus cigarette smoke is everywhere. My knees start to hurt from standing with them locked so tightly. It is hard to be historic. Suddenly, my bones feel heavier.
“Wild colors,” Tracy says, ignoring me. “What if he gave you a pendent or a ring with a Stickman stone? What if it was, once, a part of a Stickman’s heart?”
She cries Oh My God to the aluminum sky. Head back, long, vulnerable neck offered to the air. Too-plump cheeks turning red.
“I don’t think they have hearts,” I say, though she doesn’t seem to hear.
“That would be glass. Wouldn’t that be glass?” she says.
I smile and nod. Worry that, with all the empty space in my head, even this small movement of surrender might dislodge my brain from its fragile neural web and send it crashing into the dry walls of my skull, killing me on the spot.
The way Adam doesn’t dress makes me believe he feels safe with me. Tallow light strains against the bare skin of his shoulders and hips while he smokes. He is sitting on the mattress, and I am watching him, curled in his dusty sheets. When he inhales on his cigarette, sucking on it like he’s trying to draw out a question, his chest expands just so in the light. And I imagine this movement of his, this angle, this light, has never been seen before by anyone alive.
He lets the smoke drift out of his mouth as if it’s a kind of accident. The smoke tangles in the air. I imagine this is what old thoughts look like. I could trace the moles on his back by memory. Indeed, later that day, in Mr. Boltland’s geometry class, a space of exact shapes, I will draw a facsimile of those dark constellations on my own, smooth forearm, as I have in every geometry for the past three weeks. One twentieth scale and much darker in black, disposable pen. Time hangs like a corpse.
For now, the winter sunlight is an indifferent presence in the room. He has a frameless photo of himself on his otherwise bare wall. In it, he is smiling in a way I have never seen before. Broadly, revealing his teeth to be a little too large for his mouth. A human imperfection in him that I have come to love as his only flaw.
Now his smile is calm and adult. Only a shade lighter than his contemplative frown. It makes me think of light through colored glass. Strained and beautiful. I’ve taken to emulating it in front of my bathroom mirror each morning.
“What are you thinking about?” I say.
“War,” he says.
“War?” I say.
“Sometimes I have dreams,” he says. “Where I wake up in the shade of burning apple trees. There’s gunfire, or my teeth are chattering. And someone puts a knife in my hand and points me at the sun.”
“Cool,” I say. And I mean, I understand him.
He smiles his glass smile, and the bedsprings gasp as he stands.
Adam is twenty-four, and had served a half tour before being wounded at the North American Crater Line where Ontario, Michigan, and the great lakes used to be. Fighting off the intermittent waves of Stickmen, creatures as brittle and mindless as glass sculptures, but with the inexplicable ability to bend and magnify light.
Despite their stiff bodies, Stickmen move in a shockingly fluid way. Long legged, gazelle like. With a bony grace. Their fingers are pointed. Their skin is polished and geometric, edged. I know this from the shaky, soldier taken videos on websites like “Save Sentient Species” and “Snuff Before Bed.” One clip showed a Stickman reaching toward a group of soldiers, and thin, blue-white beams came from its fingers like tangling marionette strings. The men fell to pieces like dolls. There was an odd rightness to that.
The Stickmen are beautiful and misshapen. Almost human in proportion, but thin and with random extra joints or protruding nobs of glassy flesh. Faceless, but not headless. Deformed, but alive. Long limbs like bones without flesh. As translucent as moonlight or handmade glass. They come straight from the ground, in the Creator Lands, which spread outwards like a spill and become Crater Lands after they’re sucked dry. Dead land. Infected land. And gray sky as broad as a sea. Glass men. When I ask Adam about it, he smiles.
“There were little pieces of light everywhere,” he says. “And when you closed your eyes, there was a field of empty spaces. And when you opened them, it was real.”
I guess he was infantry. Some days I guess Air Force or specialist or radioman or medic. He never says.
Adam is crippled in some subtle way, which must be how he received his honorable discharge. Sometimes, when very drunk, he walks with a stiff limp. Softly dragging his foot over the small stones of gravel parking lots or leaning against particle board walls in makeshift bars along the highway, crippled soldier bars, moonshine speakeasies, with all his weight on one leg. From this, I know he is always in pain, but always hiding it. Even when he is with me.
Falls City is a small town where the flag is always raised to half-mast, has per the Human Tragedy Act. The town is filled with faces as familiar and constant as bricks. But there’s a flat spot in the city, in its human lie detector readout. Any boy, and many women though they are exempt from the draft, with a shoulder strong enough to break the bucking of a gun is stationed somewhere out in the drained mineral waste of the Crater Lands, pockmarked with the shallow graves the Stickmen dug themselves out of. Shooting hollow bullets wild into the sky and fields and screaming Armageddon into the recoil.
Adam’s arrival in Falls City was like the dropping of a bomb. A veteran, but still young. A rare animal. Endangered and elusive. Bronze hair in loose curls, a smooth face and sharp bones just under his skin. Aggressively handsome. Tall. A body that looked solid and as tightly held as a fist, even under clothes. A brown leather jacket, tattered, that gave him a fine edge of danger. A small scar, almost invisible, under his eye like a silver tear. Eyes like blue-white lightning.
Glass as the end of the world.
They, the old men and the nervous women, said he’d inherited his house in town from an uncle whom he’d never met. The uncle had made his fortune in metals and industrial diamonds, but had died, of a heart attack, on the day Chicago fell, too young to spend any of it. So that task fell to Adam. Adam was also, they whispered from the reassessed caves of suburban porches and the broad peninsula of the general store porches, dangerous. Exactly how, they wouldn’t say. Only that young girls should stay away from him.
I started to jog by his house. I wore shorts that accented the length and curve of my tanned legs. Brightly colored tank-tops cut low, hugging my slim chest and stomach like a finer skin. Sometimes, days when I spotted him on his porch, drinking beer from an oil can or smoking hand rolled cigarettes that reminded me, embarrassingly, of tiny tampons, I would pretend to lose steam, stop and put my hands on my knees. Breathing too hard. Finally, after a few weeks of silence, he spoke to me.
“How old are you?” he said.
“Eighteen,” I said. The lie felt familiar in my mouth, though I’d never lied about my age before. I could tell it was familiar to him too. From the way he barely smiled.
“Have a beer,” he said. “You run too much. You look tired.”
Later, when I had come depend on him, on his voice and his skin, we fell into a kind of whirlpool routine. I would cut school and he would drive us to a bar at the edge of the state, where no one ever asked about me, and the sawdust swirled around our ankles when we moved like dirty clouds. Songs about the past. Or he might take me to the old movie house in town, almost always empty, where my father used to take me, and I would kiss his fingers and guide them while overhead the cigarette smoke would twist in the silver light of make-believe lives. Propaganda films, mostly, where CGI Stickmen with voices like throat cancer survivors terrorized small towns, like this one, with the laser eyes all over their bodies.
“Are their voices really like that?” I say, breathy like birds in flight. Thinking about the old man who sold us our tickets, who would always let out a micro sigh when he saw me. Who lived alone above the theater.
“No,” he says. “They can’t speak really. But they can make sounds like wind chimes and wine glasses. They make those sounds when they’re dying.”
My mother knocks so softly, I think she is afraid of being heard. Since the day they added my father’s name to the remembered plaque in the center of town, years after he went MIA, she has moved through life as caught in an undertow, struggling against something invisible and all around her. Bones like stones buried in her skin. She has aged all at once, and I’m not sure either of us recognize her now.
And I’ve been holding my face so still for so long, I can’t feel it anymore. I don’t answer her knock. I am trapped in the edges of my reflection.
The only light in the bathroom comes from a small window high on the wall, dawn light diluted and thin looking through the clouded glass of the shower doors. The titles are cool under my feet, and the mirror is a perfectly flat world over which I have total control.
“Dear, I have to shower,” she says through the crack under the door. I picture her on her hands and knees, staring at the severe bend of my ankle and the soft red questions of my painted toes with one peeled eye.
“I’m sure no one cares,” I say. I try to say it without moving my lips, this new smile is a way of growing up in the same way letting Jason Tillman make a clumsy fist under my training bra in eighth grade was a way of growing up. It requires leaving something behind.
Not that there was much to make a fist with back then. Looking at the unforgiving curves of my breasts now, and my new, zero degree smile, it comes to me that Jason got cheated, somehow, by time. Both his parents died in the war. They were snipers, but he doesn’t have the patience for that kind of thing. He’s got infantry written all over him. Blocky jaw and deeply set eyes. Knuckles like stones. If I try, I can still feel the damp umbrella of his hand cupping my breast.
I hear a small sigh, a moth in the candle sigh.
“I care,” she says through the crack.
I say nothing, and concentrate on not moving my face. But even so, I see the careful shape tighten slightly in the mirror. The corners of my lips becoming too sharp. The slim lines of my eyebrows sliding inward, toward my nose. I sigh too, like I let something escape me.
“Now I have to start over,” I say. Loud enough for her to infer that it is her fault.
I look at my phone on the counter. Adam hasn’t answered my morning salvo, something stupid about the sunrise, and suddenly I imagine him sleeping. The hard curves of his shoulders and his naked hip. And I smile without using my teeth.
I am finished with my practice for the morning, one hour of making myself into something new every day. But I don’t open the door, instead I sit on the toilet and gently massage my face with my fingertips. Listening to my mother’s sounds. I hear the water running in the kitchen, the hard sound of the metal basin catching water. It comes in a rhythm that makes me think she is washing her face and under her arms. I picture her, topless, heavy sacks of her breasts catching the rising light in spotted ways. Bottle of green dish soap in one raised hand, cleaning her exposed armpit with a damp rag or scraping at her skin it with soft fingernails.
The light is harder now, and thicker and yellow. I hear the front door open and close. I wait a moment, then I open the door to the shower and step inside. The porcelain is warming in the sun, and it’s pleasant against the bare soles of my feet.
Through the tiny hole of the window, I watch the small shape of my mother. Putting on makeup in the rear view mirror of her car. She works in Pen’ City, forty miles out of town, as a clerical worker in a geriatric hospital. Smiling calmly, I turn the shower nob all the way open. The water, as cold as rain, makes me gasp.
I watch a video on my phone where a tight squad of soldiers firework a Stickman with spitting bursts from their M16’s. Stickmen are solitary, by nature. They roam the craters alone. And despite how fragile they look their bodies are hard, petrified. And they will cut down any person in the crystal radius of their eyes without emotion or warning. An eyebeam like a wire. A line of nothing drawn on skin. This is what it’s like when someone looks at you. They are trying to cut you open. In the video, little chips of moonlight fly everywhere. A silver confetti. Under the video, in the comments, I read that it is dangerous to inhale. They are phase zero when they first break, and they could seed your lungs the way they seed the earth. Turn you into glass. And I hold my breath until my lungs pop and the world blinks on and off in spots like a light.
Adam tells me to do whatever I want to do. I get a small tattoo, along the inside of my wrist like a cut. It reads Stay Here. The guy asks me if I’m eighteen, and I laugh. He is a big man, with a stomach so large I image two half-formed children wrestling inside it, but he seems nervous and eager for me to leave. His beard makes a soft crackling sound when he scratches his chin. He’s got the scent of hot ink all over his fingers and tangled in his hair.
“She’s eighteen,” Adam says.
When I cannot speak, he speaks for me. He is dressed in his tattered leather jacket, which he told me he was wearing during a plane crash just outside the state. I feel, suddenly, like a passenger in his life. And I wonder, without urgency, where it will take me.
The needle hurts so much, I want to scream. And it makes me feel very young.
When it’s done, I am thinking of my father. Sometimes I let myself imagine he smelled of shoe polish or roasted pumpkin seeds. Maybe he was plain looking, or his skin was soft, and I could feel it depress when I hugged him. But imagination loses something under constant revision.
“Do you like it?” I say to Adam.
“Do you?” he says. His eyes have another question in them though, one that I want desperately to answer. A silver question, and a blank in my mind.
“I like it if you like it,” I say.
That seems to disappoint him. A slight heaviness in his shoulders. A drag in his walk as we leave.
Inside, in my glass guts, I do like it. The pain is an anchor, even more than the words.
I stop taking tests. Now, when they ask for the quadratic formula or to explain the significance of the phrase “No Foreign Entanglements,” I write “Glass Girl” over and over. I run for hours, smiling like a stranger, just as dawn is cracking the dull mirror of the sky. I cut my hair short so that it ends just as my eyes end. Adam runs both his hands through it, and it makes my head feel very small.
“You look so glass,” Tracy says, rolling her own thick, grade school hair behind an ear. She wants to be a veterinarian and a rock star and a war hero all at once. And I don’t want to be anything.
I am slimmer now. Every part of me is hard and cool. The dry body of a long distance runner. Historic the way granite is historic. It must have always been. The letters of the tattoo are slightly raised, as if something is rising up from beneath them.
“I feel like glass,” I say.
In church, I shake my ass at the priest subtly enough that he can believe it is his imagination. In tiny skirts that end just as my legs end. I catch his eyes like lightning bugs in my cupped hands. Clergy are exempt from the draft too. Mother’s hands are clasped beside me. Eyes tightly shut.
Coming home from a run, my body slick with sweat and cutting hard edges out of the air, I walk in on my mother getting into the shower. We stand that way for a moment. Naked, her body is softer than I’ve imagined it. There’s a kind of delicate swelling about her, like pregnancy. As if her skin can barely contain her.
“Are you okay?” she says. Her face bent into an unappealing twist of concern.
I realize my zero cool smile has slipped. And from just the feeling of my face, I can’t guess what shape I’m making now.
“I’m changing,” I say.
“You’re just growing up. Don’t worry,” she says. The shower is fogging up the mirror, and anyone could be on the other side of that steam. I think she is afraid of me, but she makes no move to cover herself. “It was that way for me too.”
In one video, from “Save Sentient Species,” a Stickman strands in the rocky Creator Lands near a dead pool of water. The plane is pitted with a thousand shallow graves. The places where the Stickmen birthed themselves. It has human proportions. Chest. Head. Hips. Gemstone skin. It has two long arms that seem almost human in shape, and a third that has two joints and is much shorter. All three are raised to the sky, reaching for something outside the frame. There is a dizzy humming, and light breaks into all colors in the flat sections of its skin. Its flat, sightless eyes. The video was taken in south China, in the Asian Pacific Creator, or Creator Four. In the distance, I can see the jagged skyline of a city. Hazy with gun smoke and bending light.
I scratch at the inside of my wrist. I wonder if anyone is left there, in that city. And where and how they might have gone.
The sun is setting. Adam tosses a can over the porch railing and an empty, aluminum rattle comes from somewhere beyond the loose pinholes of my drunken night vision. For a moment, I imagine a beer-can rattlesnake. Flat, crumpled head and chrome blue body in the bloody light, shaking with a fear so powerful it could kill. Being run over by a car in an almost empty desert as wide as the moon.
“We’re empty?” I say. I have my knees bent up in my chair, and I’m digging my nails into the softness of my inner thigh. I am numb enough to trick the instinct buried in my skin, and I believe these nails might belong to someone else.
“When my dad came back from the Crater Lands,” he says. “Back in the second phase, just after the Detroit wave, when they still looked like animals, I remember my mom washing him in the bathtub. He’d lost an arm, and his skin was loose even though he was thin. He hardly spoke anymore. I didn’t know him, he’d left, it seemed, just as I was beginning. So to me, he was a deformed no one who took all my mother’s time, and her joy, and stared at the sun like it was a TV or a book he was reading.”
I don’t say anything. I’m afraid to interrupt, as if interruption might break him. It feels dangerous, even, to inhale. I hold my breath tight in the two little fists of my lungs, make tiny crescent scars on the inside on my leg as I squeeze.
“When I got a little older,” he says. “I would catch him watching me, and I understood that he was angry with me. With the way I was growing into something he’d lost. He got older. His skin was cracking more every day, and his hair was disappearing. He had a lumpy skull. Suddenly, girls would watch me, when they thought I wasn’t looking, and my body was so hard and new. I felt like I could lift anything. I believed, in my blood, that if I jumped as hard as I could, I would escape the gravity of the earth like a rocket ship and make a brand new crater in the moon. But then, time catches up. My mom shot herself with a hunting rifle a few weeks after I turn sixteen. She pushed the trigger with a fork, because she couldn’t reach it with her fingers. And dad just kept shrinking.”
He’s silent for a while. My lungs are tanks of perfect pressure.
“My father never came back,” I say. “But his ghost did.”
I am thinking of the remembered. Names lined up like holes in people, through which all kinds of things escape. Something draining out of my mother’s body like dirty bathwater.
“Come to the basement,” he says, standing. Against the sunset, his profile is featureless and handsome. A perfect stranger.
“Why?” I say, standing. The world wriggles and shakes under my eyes, as if shivering.
“There are some things to see down there,” he says, and there is a wink in his voice. “Things to touch.”
And in the black spaces of my head, where no oxygen has ever reached, I misunderstand him.
Adam keeps cans of beans, vegetable and beef soup in waist high pyramids stacked on the dirt floor of his basement. There’re cinderblock-plywood shelves loaded with empty mason jars catching dirty light, and more sturdy, metal shelves covered in cotton blankets with rows of carefully crooked guns lain out across them. The guns are slick, heavy creatures that make me think of moonlight on metal, on miles of beaten railroad track at night. The paring knife I sometimes keep in my purse, for no reason at all, or under my pillow, to stab a nightmare.
Adam explains everything to me.
The FN P90, a PDW with a 50 round top loading magazine, small-caliber high-velocity ammunition, and the crumpled body and barrel of something folding in on itself. The Benelli M4 Super 90 semi-automatic, gas-operated shotgun, with ghost ring sight and Picatinny rail expansion options. Collapsible shoulder stock for better maneuverability around some of the tight corners of city warfare. The Five-seveN semi-automatic pistol with polymer-based, lightweight body, armor piercing rounds, low recoil, and ambidextrous controls. Something anyone could hold on to.
“The Five-seveN uses the same rounds as the P90,” he says. “So they make a good pair.”
He turns the pistol over in his hand. The light in the basement is a kind of buzzing, harvest moon yellow that casts thin shadows, like cracks, over everything. Forty-watt bulbs oozing light. He checks the slide release, pulling back the top of the gun until it sticks out in the manner of a protruding bone, and snapping it back into place with a flick of his thumb.
“You’re a real boy scout,” I say, drunkenly, spotting a shovel crusted in dry dirt leaning against a wall near a tarp spread out over a loose rectangle of dirt. The earth smells fresh and torn and is everywhere in the air. “You burying somebody down here?”
He smiles his nothing smile, his zero smile, and hands me the gun.
Unloaded, it’s surprisingly light. And I feel as if I’m holding a black, misshapen egg. What will you become? I think at it.
“It’s light,” I say. And I’m thinking of birds and other creatures with hollow bones. Stickmen, say, or some people I can imagine.
“The polymer makes it light,” he says. “Even fully loaded, it’s hardly over a pound five.”
There is a sense of things shifting in me. I point the gun at the great nothing and all the stiff light trapped in jars around us. He seems pleased with the way I handle the gun. I can sense it in the way he leans toward me without moving.
He tells me he has something for me and produces a copper ring set loosely with a huge shard of stone. Almost transparent with trapped rainbows like pockets of air.
“You know what this is?” he says.
I slip it over the ring finger of my right hand while still holding the fragile egg of the gun. It’s tight. I have to force it on, and I worry the rough edges might cut me. It looks handmade, pounded out of thick wire and bent into this blank shape.
“Don’t be scared,” he says. “It’s stage two. It can’t seed.”
“I’m not scared,” I say. I hear imaginary gunfire from inside my own head, echoes from the vids, and I am thinking of what it might feel like to kill the sun.
“Good,” he says. “Does it feel good?”
And I almost say yes, before I realize he only means the ring. What does the ring feel like?
Later, when he touches me, there is a fear in his damp hands. I feel a shaking in him and smell alcohol in the spice of his sweat. His skin is taught and cool, and it doesn’t warm up even after I’m sweating and crumpled beneath him.
“Everything is going to be alright,” he says, over and over. This is the way it has to be.
I want to tell him to stay here, stay, but I am afraid that if I open my mouth all that will come out is a high sound, beyond my control, that is no more meaningful than the regular bending of his bedsprings. Instead, I dig my nails into his back and pray that I won’t have to be the one who lets go first.
After, he tells me about the end of the world. He’s naked. His body is pounded copper. The lidless eye of the moon is blue and distant through a window. I ache all over.
“Are you afraid?” he says.
“Yes,” I say, uncoiling like a spool of thread.
“I want to ask you something else,” he says, and the dead light makes him look inhumanly perfect.
The next day, in my own bed, my finger is ringed with dark green, like I am rusting. I enjoy the idea of this more than I will admit.
Sometimes supply drones fly over town. Dark, huge shapes like whales diving over the whole world. Towards the crater lands in the north. Towards the crater lands in the south. Such heavy things can fly.
I saw Jason recently, in The Chromium Dinner window under the shadow of a drone. He was feeding fries and pieces of hamburger meat into his own open mouth vacantly, the way someone might shovel coal into a train engine. He had a solder’s short hair and stiff back, but the pitted, apple face of a boy. Something about him made me shiver and hurry on.
The Stickmen used to look more like animals in the earlier years of impact, blobs of crystal with many legs and limbs that seemed to have no purpose. Over the years, they’ve looked more and more human. Shedding their strange limbs and headless bodies in favor of more familiar shapes. Why? Some people say it is proof of the existence of their souls.
Through the stone on the ring, the world is a perfect place of shattered colors, none of which I can quite name. Azure. Viridian. Fuchsia. Burgundy. Argent.
Main Street is transformed through it. The Boarder twins, an eighty-year-old brother and sister who have never married, float down the sidewalk on paper legs, and through the glass it is as if they are carried in a gentle current of silver and amber. Two boys I don’t know walk up the middle of the street carrying metal bats and whistling low, lilac notes that send waves through the air. The flag in front of town hall is absolutely still halfway up its poll. A kind of shadow that has its own light. The stained glass window of the church, a dove in frozen flight, a white that glows like lightning. Like something burning under the surface of the eye. I can smell the corn fields ripening outside of town, and the fast grease from the pizzeria. The barber shop. Lou’s law office. The pawn shop. The police station. The court house. I imagine we are at peace. But peace, to me, is just a story. The sun is heavy and feels extremely close. There’s a stillness here that has the ancient feeling of the sea. And I am drowning in all this light.
Later that day, the first Stickman appears in town, though, by then, I am already running.
Tracy tells me about it later. When we meet up in one of the refugee camps, down in the molasses heat of the southern states, her voice is all rasp and moonlight. A smoker’s voice or a jazz singer’s. There are bright skies, impossibly huge. Tents and cinder block homes and the chatter of many nervous voices. Sweat and waxy, ivory soap. Horizons wafting like illusions in every direction.
Tracy was getting her hair cut when it happened, and saw it all through the barber shop window on Main, a plane of glass as thin as a bedsheet hung out to dry. Indeed, her hair is half chopped off now, and she says she’s going to leave it that way. Tilted. Absurd. Fierce the way a desert animal’s fur is fierce. Ragged and violent.
She tells me about explosions. How dark and thick the dust was, like moving through muddy water. A high pitched cutting sound and a crashing that is now lodged deep down in her skull, invisible shrapnel. A tall figure, nearly translucent, walking stiffly on newborn legs. Limping, in what I imagine to be a delicate, hidden way. Pain in the cracks of light running all through its body. Behind it a thousand shades of smoke rose in twisting columns. There was something unformed about the figure, she says. Something missing and sad. A glass person. No skin. No real eyes. No heart.
“Looking at it, I started to cry, and I didn’t know why. It’s not like in the videos.”
I nod, scratching at the inside of my wrist.
From small pits on its body, random strings of light, blue-silver and oil-spot rainbow, shot out and cut clean corners off buildings and thin lines of never-was into the concrete of the sidewalk. Streetlamps tumbled, and huge bulbs of safety glass shattered on the asphalt.
She’d watched as a finger of light reached out and cut a running boy neatly in half. The two pieces of him slapping the ground like hands in a prayer.
To me, there is something devastatingly familiar about all this. There is a line of people near us that ends at a recruitment tent, but from where I’m standing, it seems to disappear into mirage.
A truck roared by Tracy. She was standing by then, at the window. And she recognized Mr. Harris, the math and science teacher at our high school, bearing down on the Stickman, who seemed confused, even blind, dragging one ill-formed leg. She could smell shampoo and hair gel and the first wisps of the gasoline and rubber fires. Harris crashed the truck into the Stickman, and the steel hood crumpled on it like skin. The Stickman flew backward, but it rolled with a jangling sound like breaking light, and landed on its flat feet. A knife edge of light, a net of light from a thousand sightless eyes, and the truck was falling to pieces, and it exploded in a flower of tiny glass cubes and little wings of flame.
And she screamed. She screamed all the way out of town and across the state until something in her throat broke while crossing the border between Kansas and Oklahoma. And she is sure it will never unbreak. But I know better. I know how obscure pain really is, how abstract. How breaking, clean and final, would almost always be easier than the slow throb of living. The ache that comes in time with the beat of some strange heart.
“Where were you?” she says in her new, smoke-colored voice. She has gotten thinner, and it makes her much prettier. She has a severe beauty, not unlike my own.
“Nowhere,” I say, and I decide that her hair is ridiculous and juvenile. Her hair is like bad acting. Obvious. Exaggerated. I understand, then, that there may be no way for us to be ourselves. Maybe skin is just uncomfortable. I can hear someone calling a child’s name nearby. An oddly aviary sound. Bird like.
“Yeah,” she says, slow, looking around us at all the shanty humanity of the world. “Haven’t gotten far, have you?”
When the world ended, I was running. After I ignored her many calls, I got a text from my mother, who was forty miles away in Pen’ City, holding hands with a dying man, a ninety-six-year-old stranger, who had lost track of the world.
“Aliens?” he’d asked my mother in a voice like burning paper. “Is that how it all ends? Good God.”
I imagined this as a peaceful moment for her, betrayed by her panicked text, “Where r u!!!” and then, “PLEASE”. I shut off my phone.
Running, I saw the black smoke rising like a snake from a charmer’s basket, hypnotized, from the edge of town. Shapely. Seductive. I heard the crashing of distant things breaking. Sounds like being underwater. I had a backpack with some clothes and water and food and toilet paper. The money and the gun, the Five-seveN, that Adam had given me wrapped in a towel and stuffed at the bottom. And I just kept on running.
Lungs beating like extra hearts, shutting my eyes and running into blindness, I tried to imagine that he hadn’t told me. Hadn’t shown me that tiny marble of stage one corpse, glittering and alive with light, a seed that he’d managed to smuggle out of the Creator Lands in a body bag marked with a dead friend’s name. Tried to imagine that I hadn’t watched him swallow it, and touched his throat lightly with my naked fingers and felt it go down. Tried to imagine that I was thirteen again and swimming naked in the freezing waters of the Atlantic. The campfire getting smaller and smaller on the shore behind me, like the thousand other, flickering things I’ve left behind. My stubby, child’s body just beginning to change in ways that I had no say in and that I would never be able to take back. And starting to go numb in the water. Everything was lighter then.
Tried to imagine I didn’t know the feeling. Didn’t understand that desire, bottomless and cool and rising up from my twitching leg muscles and radiating from my twitching heart. The desire to eat up the whole world and hoard all light somewhere dark inside my glass chest.
Tried to imagine that, when he asked me, under the blind light of the moon, “Do you want the world to end?” I had said anything but yes, or that I had been lying.
I ran and ran and imagined a world, a perfect place of scattered light and whole skin as warm and close as blood, where, somehow, I had been able to make him stay.
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Copyright © 2017 Ryan Row